This is a popular one. Almost anyone you ask will tell you that unfeeling and ignorant Americans changed hard-to-pronounce “foreign” names at Ellis Island, ruining people’s self-esteem and making genealogical research very difficult for their descendants.
But at its heart, this does not make sense. You will learn in the same essay, or book chapter, etc., that every language under the sun was spoken at Ellis Island, and that hundreds of people worked as translators… and that names were changed by officials who didn’t know how to spell them. How can it be that there were hundreds of translators and none of them working alongside officials to translate (spell out) names? How can it be that none of those officials were immigrants themselves who would know the names? First, an important truth is that the majority of people coming through Ellis Island did not have their names changed. Name changes were the exception, not the rule.
But some did happen. To see why, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s how people got from Europe to America during the 19th and early 20th centuries: you either bought a ticket in your home country (let’s say Hungary) or traveled from your home country to a European port city (let’s say Le Havre, France) and bought a ticket there. Once you had a ticket, your name was listed in the ship’s register. This register was vital—during the period under discussion here, the most important thing once you got to the U.S. was that officials find your name on the ship’s register. This meant you were not a stowaway, had enough money to have bought a ticket, and were generally solid immigration material. The only two requirements for entry into the U.S. were having your name on the ship’s register and passing a quick “six-second” physical (see Illegal immigrants must be stopped!).
But you are Hungarian, and the ship’s register is being written by a French person. Does he know how to spell your name? Most likely the French registrar does not speak Magyar. Most likely you are illiterate and cannot write your name yourself. Unless you have a literate Hungarian friend with you, or have learned to write one thing—your name—you have to settle for saying your name as slowly and carefully as possible, and hope for the best. If your name is Székely, likely the French official will transliterate that as something like “Ciquay”, and you will never know the difference. You get on the ship and arrive in America.
At Ellis Island, the ship’s register is read by an official. He is assisted by an interpreter who speaks Magyar. You tell her your name, but she can’t find it on the register as Székely. She does find Ciquay, and reads the first name, and eventually, by talking with you, puts two and two together. She and the official confer: officially, your exact name must be on the register, but clearly a transliteration has taken place. Since the register cannot be altered, you have two options: insist on Székely and be sent home to try again, or accept Ciquay. Yes, you most likely accept Ciquay, or Seekay (if you came through Liverpool) or Zikee (if you came through Hamburg), and you go off to live your life in America. The official allows you to do this, since he understands the error that took place in France. You can also accept the new spelling of your name, which many immigrants did. Why? Because it was written on the papers they got at Ellis Island, and they didn’t want to make those papers look falsified. They also rarely had to write their own names, and, because they were illiterate and were not used to writing their names, they ended up accepting the misspelling by passing it along to their children, who did learn to read and write (English) in American schools—it became more familiar to them than the real spelling.
Once you settle in with other Hungarian immigrants, one of them might point out how your name is supposed to be spelled, but you may not care enough to change it, especially since the correctly spelled name will now contradict your papers. Top this off with the desire of many immigrants to Americanize their lives, including their names, and you have a family now going by the name Seekay for decades to come. The error is only found later by suspicious descendants who know their family is Hungarian but can’t find the name Ciquay or Seekay in any list of Hungarian names. These grandchildren eventually find that the name was changed when the ancestor came to America. But it was not Ellis Island that changed the names, it was Ellis Island that accepted the changes made in Europe. Ellis Island was the site of conferences about whether to accept misspellings and changes made at European ports.
It was tricky. No one wanted to take the chance of being refused admission to the U.S. because their real name was not on the register, and those who understood that their name was misspelled were often willing to let it ride in order to get through immigration with no difficulties. Immigration officials at Ellis Island, working with translators or using their own knowledge, usually accepted the transliteration, not out of ignorance or xenophobic spite but because it would make things easier for the immigrant. Immigrants who spoke English were more often able to later fix misspellings, but many could not or did not make the correction.
So many Americans and Europeans blame the proliferation of spellings of names on poor Ellis Island officials. But the real reasons for the Reillys, Rileys, Reilleys, and Reilys in the U.S. are illiteracy in the European home nations, monolinguist ships’ officials in Europe, and flexible immigrants and officials at Ellis Island.